I’m a connoisseur of non-alcoholic beers. I started drinking them around 1990, when I gave up alcohol.
At first, N/A beers were just a placeholder, something to distract me and nurse for a couple of hours when I went out with friends. I’d take whatever they were serving, usually some bland version of a corporate standard—Budweiser Zero, Kaliber, O’Doul’s, etc. Most of it’s weasel piss.
One of the worst, and in my opinion an N/A beer that has been coasting on its name for too long, is Heineken 0.0. This stuff is bathwater, and no amount of hype, including the upcoming Super Bowl ad with the Ant-Man tie-in, is going to change that. I’d sooner drink out of a hose.
Last year I upgraded my N/A beer selection and became a true snob. It happened by accident. I was in Virginia Beach, where I was attempting to learn surfing after a lifetime as a skateboarder. My first time out was a hilarious disaster, although I managed to get up on my last try after about two hours. I’d used every peripheral muscle to balance only to go ass over elbow into the ocean, where I swallowed a couple gallons of salt water. I was sunburned and parched with a headache when I headed back to the Hilton.
I stopped at the Food Lion and was walking past the coolers when I noticed it: Sam Adams “Just the Haze,” a non-alcoholic beer. The appeal was instant. I didn’t want the sugary taste of a Coke or Sprite, and when I drink regular alcoholic beer I eventually wind up under a bed or in handcuffs. Yet I wanted the taste of a beer, which can soak into your cells with a depth and satisfaction that Dr. Pepper can’t. I bought a four-pack and headed back to the hotel. Over some crabs and cole slaw, I cracked one open and guzzled it down.
Fantastic. Fruity, heady, foamy and satisfying, “Just the Haze” filled me from my toes to my sunburned scalp. Compared to watery nastiness of O’Doul’s and Budweiser Zero, it was lush. It satisfied my soul without the rotting teeth of a Pepsi.
Since that experience I’ve experimented with over a dozen N/A beers. I’ve also narrowed my favorites down to a Top Five. Because the prose of beer reviews (like wine reviews) can get a bit purple, I’m going to cheat and use the various Spice Girls to represent what’s great about each beer. The Spice Girls haven’t been around for a while, yet each still represents an archetype that finds a rough analog in beer. I mean the human food-sex connection is not exactly new.
In reverse order, my Top Five:
5. St. Pauli Girl N/A: The Posh Spice of beers. Corporate, not too expressive or individualistic. With minimal talent it gets the job done.
4. Athletic Brewing Company: Run Wild IPA :Sporty Spice. Lean, citrus-heavy, it doesn’t make you feel bloated and delivers a sweet, sexy kick.
3. Sam Adams “Just the Haze.”: Scary Spice. Gorgeous, full-bodied, elegant and kind. Heavy citrus overtones like Athletic’s line, but a satisfying body and tantalizing. It’s not afraid to express itself and works both at a cookout and a sit-down dinner.
2. Stella Artois “Liberte”: Baby Spice. Clean, crisp, sexy and innocent, it’s light and will quench your thirst without bloating or gas. Blonde and sunny where others are more earthy and dark.
1. Erdinger Non-Alcoholic Malt Beer: Ginger. The bomb. Full-bodied, buttery, enveloping. Comforting but with a small hint of nuttiness. From Germany, it comes in a thick, shapely bottle. You’ll need to smoke a cigarette afterwards.